FARGO — Before there was Pentatonix, before there were competition shows like “The Sing Off” and TV shows like “Glee,” there was a little group from Fargo called The Blenders.
The a cappella foursome, featuring Tim Kasper, Ryan Lance and brothers Darren and Allan Rust, started 30 years ago and today are best known for their soulful spin on Christmas classics.
Along the way, The Blenders made a mark for themselves in pop music. They toured the country with big-name acts and even had a major-label record deal and hit song.
They had big success, but also big challenges. Back then, their style of a cappella-infused pop music was hard to classify.
“The Blenders' biggest asset was also their biggest liability,” said longtime publicist Martin Keller. “Were they a cappella group-plus? Were they a four-man self-contained glee club? Were they a boy band? Were they blue-eyed soul singers? I mean, they were all of that and more.”
In the end, The Blenders’ mainstream success was short-lived, but their career was not.
Christmas music proved to be a perfect fit for what The Blenders did best: harmony. And with that, they found their niche.
The Blenders return to Fargo this week to kick off their traditional weeklong run of holiday shows at the Fargo Theatre. For the four members, it’s a time for reflection and gratitude. The longevity of their musical career — and their friendship — is something they say means more than any fame or accolades.
“This late in our career, it’s just a high that I can’t describe,” Darren Rust said.
To mark the occasion, The Blenders have released a new single, “One Last Song”, which is a tribute both to fans and to each other. It’s also the name of a new hour-long documentary on The Blenders, available Tuesday on InForum.com.
“We wanted to be big”
For the Blenders, Fargo has always been their north star.
Kasper and Lance met when they were just kids, living in north Fargo. Both were interested in music and spent many hours at Trollwood Performing Arts School. The Rust brothers grew up on a farm just outside Fargo. Their parents were musical, and the boys often sang in church and in the community.
All four were drawn to a cappella, a type of music that relies purely on voices to harmonize.
“There's a story we like to tell about how we got together. We were at Trollwood Park and there was a group of guys standing there singing barbershop, and they were surrounded by women and admirers. We thought, ‘Why are we not surrounded by women and admirers right now?’ We thought, ‘We’ve got to do something about that’," Kasper said.
The initial group included Kasper, Lance, Darren Rust and a singer named Paul Dunkirk.
“When we first got together and started rehearsing, we knew right away that there was something special,” Darren Rust said. “The harmonies were tighter, the rhythm was tighter, we just were in sync with each other.”
They began booking more shows and eventually landed their first agent out of Minneapolis — Dave Hoffman, who had been introduced to the guys through one of his other clients and fellow Fargoan, Bobby Vee.
The Blenders found initial success touring college campuses.
“We were all in that perfect stage where we did not have anything to lose, and we all enjoyed it so much,” Darren Rust recalled. “There was a desire to go somewhere with this; we wanted to be big.”
In the summer of 1990, they began recording in a makeshift studio Lance had set up at the Red River Dance Building. “Totally Whipped” was their first record, entirely self produced.
They appeared on the Arsenio Hall show and landed opening gigs with Jay Leno and Howie Mandel. They even auditioned for Robert De Niro for a musical part in the movie “A Bronx Tale.”
With help from their agent, they also caught the attention of entertainment lawyer Ken Abdo. Part of Abdo’s job would be to help The Blenders get their big break with a record company.
At the time, there was no music streaming, no YouTube. Getting the music on the radio was a necessity. Abdo remembered being struck by the raw talent of The Blenders, but at the same time, they were a tough sell because of their a cappella sound.
Abdo, alongside Owen Husney — the same person who got Prince signed to his first record deal — prevailed. The Blenders became the first act signed to Orchard Lane, a proprietary label created by Sam Goody, part of the Musicland group.
“It's much like Amazon today making movies, and that was met with some unwelcome responses by other people in the music industry,” Abdo said. “And their guinea pig group more or less was going to be The Blenders.”
The deal guaranteed placement of Blenders CDs in all of the Musicland and Sam Goody stores, which were in every mall across the country in the early '90s.
Pressures of pop
With the higher profile came the need for a higher level of musical production, including instruments and producers, Levi Seacer and JD Steele. Both men were musicians in their own right and had worked with Prince. They brought a new, funkier pop style to The Blenders’ music.
With that came more tension, and for the first time, the guys began questioning their future.
“After their Orchard Lane run, I think it produced a huge amount of stress within the group, and because they felt like they were being shoehorned into this genre, full-well knowing that their talents pretty much exceeded that slick, pop/R&B sound that predominated the radio charts,” Keller explained.
In particular, this was a turning point for original Blenders member Paul Dunkirk. He said he wasn’t happy with the creative direction, and in 1995, he decided to leave the group.
Allan Rust was the obvious choice to replace Dunkirk. He already knew the guys and had some familiarly with their music. He had three days to pack up his life in Los Angeles and move to Minneapolis, where the guys were recording at Paisley Park and putting the finishing touches on their third album, “The Blenders.”
Time for a break
The momentum from their third album helped The Blenders land a major-label record deal with Universal Records. Marc Nathan, talent scout for Universal at the time, said he was drawn to The Blenders’ talent and their ability to weave humor into their music and performances.
Nathan is responsible for introducing The Blenders to what became their most famous song to date: “I Am In Love With the McDonalds Girl.” The quirky song ended up being an international hit and eventually was used in a national McDonalds commercial.
But The Blenders didn’t have big money behind them at the time and were never able to fully capitalize on the success of the song. Behind the scenes they were producing new music for the label in hopes of radio play, but nothing seemed to be connecting.
Allan Rust recalled that being one of the most difficult times.
“Pop music, the way they wanted us to be seen didn't look good on us. We were up against Boyz II Men and 98 Degrees, and then there was NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, all these boy bands, which we never felt we were,” he said. “They were trying to make us look like that, and that's where they wanted to push us. We've never been comfortable trying to fill that boy band look.”
The Blenders recorded a handful of songs during this time, but they were ultimately dropped from the Universal label and allowed to release the album “Loveland” on their own.
“It wasn't long after that, that we said, ‘We need to stop. We need to stop and take a break’," Darren Rust said.
Lance, in particular, struggled during this time and said the inspiration was just gone for him.
“It felt like we were kind of going through the motions," he said. "Personally, I think, I mean, it was a turning point for me on figuring out what I wanted to do and dealing with some of my own frustrations. I didn't know where it was going, so I withdrew a little bit.”
In 2001, The Blenders briefly went their separate ways. Until now, little has been said publicly about their break. The documentary explores that time in their lives more deeply.
“None of us wanted to tarnish our name, none of us wanted to make an announcement, ‘We're done’,” Allan Rust explained. “We didn't say anything. We just didn't make another record, and we just didn't show up that year.”
The break put things in perspective, and it didn’t take long for them to find themselves again. Christmas music provided them with the path back. They already had done one Christmas album, “Nog” in 1997 prior to the Loveland album, and the fan reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The music lends itself to the vocal harmonies that The Blenders know best.
“It's a good fit for them,” said Ross Raihala, former Forum entertainment writer and now a music critic for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “You could take your grandma and your mom and your son and daughter to see The Blenders and everyone would take something from it.”
Since 2002, The Blenders have focused almost entirely on Christmas music and the holiday tour, performing every year to sold-out crowds. They typically do around seven shows in Fargo alone, in addition to Minneapolis and occasionally Iowa.
Much of the show stays the same from year to year, but the guys say they try to add a few new things each year to keep it fresh.
This year, for the 30th anniversary show, the guys will perform their new single “One Last Song” and a medley of some of their older Christmas songs, according to Kasper.
Despite the high-production value and precision of The Blenders Christmas show each year, people might be surprised to know how quickly it comes together. This year, rehearsals kicked off just after Thanksgiving.
“We all have our lives. We have our families. We have so much going on,” Allan Rust said. “This show allows us to come back together.”
They look forward to seeing familiar faces in the crowd each year and love that their show has become a tradition for so many during the holiday season. They agree: it couldn’t happen without the fans.
“I think they see our hearts on stage, that we care about what we do, that we care about them. We're so appreciative of them, the fact that they're here to see us,” Darren Rust said. “In some ways I've felt like we never really grew up. We were just four guys, four kids with nothing to lose, green as the day is long, and I still feel like that 30 years later.”